REVIEWS: An Essential Toughness

REVIEWS: An Essential Toughness

Reviewed by John Dittmer

Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 17-18

Andrew M. Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. 1999.

The first thing you need to know about the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth is that he was fearless. A case in point: during the 1961 Freedom Rides, hundreds of Montgomery blacks were trapped inside First Baptist Church, surrounded by a large mob of angry whites. Outside of that perimeter, Shuttlesworth had CORE leader James Farmer in tow. How to get to the relative security of the church? His biographer tells us what happened next:

Shuttlesworth: “Jim, we have no choice. We’ll have to go through them.”

Farmer: “We’re going to have to do what?”

Shuttlesworth: “We’re gon’ have to walk through that mob.”

Before Farmer could answer, however, Fred began to march into the teeth of the horde and elbowed his way toward the church, shouting, “Out of the way. Let me through. Step aside.” Farmer, a much larger man than his trailblazer for the day, scuttled up to follow in Shuttlesworth’s trail, while the ocean of angry white hoodlums obeyed his word. In an occurrence Fred saw as tantamount to the parting of the Red Sea, a path opened up through an ocean of angry whites, allowing Shuttlesworth and Farmer to make an exodus into the “safety” of First Baptist Church.

Perhaps it all goes back to the Klan’s Christmas bombing of the Shuttlesworth home four years earlier, when Fred walked out of his bedroom after “eight to eighteen sticks of dynamite went off within three feet of this] head.” Shuttlesworth later testified that “I knew in a second.. that the only reason God saved me was to lead the fight”

In A Fire You Can’t Put Out, Andrew Manis has written a fascinating biography of the life and times of the civil rights activist who will always be associated with Martin Luther King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign. Manis shows us that far from being a Southern Christian Leadership Council functionary. Fred Shuttlesworth, more than any other black minister/activist, embraced and articulated the spirit of the men and women at the grass roots level, those local people who made Martin Luther King Jr. possible.

The early chapters are more autobiographical than biographical: Shuttlesworth is the major source for this account of his growing up near Birmingham in a family dominated by wife-beating stepfather and a demanding mother. Fred’s family lacked the social heritage, formal education, and professional status of the upper or middle class.” In such an environment, Fred quickly developed -an essential toughness- that would serve him well throughout his adult life. What saved the young Shuttlesworth from a life of obscurity was his intelligence, ambition, and his conversion to Christianity.

A historian of religion. Manis firmly grounds Shuffles-worth in the African-American Church. Unlike King, whose formal education at Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University prepared him to pastor an elite congregation. Shuttlesworth worked his way through blue.collar Selma University, developing a theology grounded in fundamentalist belief rather than philosophical understanding. In the pulpit, Shuttlesworth relied on improvisation rather than on a more thorough preparation of his Sunday sermons. He instinctively knew how to move a congregation, and quickly rose through the ranks to become pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham.

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Manis provides adequate treatment of the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, and the key role Shuttlesworth played in the SCLC-led movement; covering familiar ground when he discusses Shuttlesworth’s resentment over the media attention King received and King’s apparent willingness to sacrifice local concerns for favorable national publicity. But the most interesting parts of this fascinating biography deal with Shuttlesworth’s life in the 1950s, when he bravely fought a lonely battle against segregation in America’s Johannesburg. His Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was the vehicle for the attack on Jim Crow, as time and again he stood up to Bull Connor and the Klan, despite jailings, beatings, more bombings, and psychological warfare waged against his family.

What kind of person could not only survive, but apparently thrive in a society built on white supremacist terror? Manis obviously thinks highly of his subject, but this is no hagiography. Shuttlesworth comes across as a courageous but flawed human being. Whether in the home, in his church, or in the inner councils of the ACMHR, Shuttlesworth insisted on having his way. A male chauvinist (Manis says that Shuttlesworth’s major redeeming quality as a husband was that he did not beat his wife, Ruby!), he ruled his family with an iron hand, neglecting his parental role while devoting his time to the Birmingham movement (One of his daughters recalled her surprise when her father actually showed up for her high school graduation.) Shuttlesworth loved the limelight; and his boastful comments about his relationship with famous people like the Kennedys speak both to his ego and his insecurity.

Still, the Fred Shuttlesworth who sticks in the mind is the militant warrior who stood up for human rights in Birmingham at a time when to do so was foolhardy if not fatal. Inside the movement he championed the progressive Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) and its spokespersons Carl and Anne Braden, while more cautious leaders like Andrew Young were warning against associating with SCEF, labeled “pro-communist” by such statesmen as Senator James Eastland.

Andrew Manis observed that Shuttlesworth was “the person most willing to sacrifice his own well-being for the cause.” Perhaps Diane Nash, the SNCC activist also known for her dedication to principle, put it best when she said, “Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important for there to be somebody that really represented strength, and that’s certainly what Fred did. He would not back down, and you could count on it. He would not sell out, and you could count on that?

John Dittmer is a professor of history at DePauw University and is working on a book on the Medical Committee for Human Rights.